The League of Legends World Championship is Riot Games' largest annual event, and this year's worlds were scheduled to be the biggest in its 10-year history. To be held across multiple cities in China and concluding in Shanghai, 2020 worlds were supposed to be a celebration of the championship's decadelong existence as well as a display of just how popular League of Legends is as both a game and a competitive esport.
Now the coronavirus pandemic has made that impossible.
With the extravagant China worlds roadshow pushed back to 2021, Riot is now trying to decide how it can hold a championship event that is as close to its original vision as possible without compromising competitive integrity or player and staff health.
Last week, ESPN reported that a bubble environment, similar to the NBA's campus in Orlando, Florida, was being considered as the leading method of holding a world championship. Ideally, the 2020 League of Legends World Championship will still be held in a physical local area network (LAN) environment with players quarantining for 14 days before playing each other at a venue -- most likely the LPL regular-season arena in Shanghai. However, if the teams can't play on LAN, the fallback option would be to play each other online.
What's wrong with playing online?
For the uninitiated, the solution might seem simple: Video games are played online anyway, so why not just play each other online? For anyone who has tried to play a video game on a server in a different country, the answer is obvious: lag. Lag is a delay or latency between input and the response from the game's online server. Ping is used to determine the amount of delay, with one ping being 0.001 of a second. A zero-ping environment (no latency whatsoever) is needed for competition at the highest level. This is typically done with a LAN and both teams physically competing against each other in the same space on the same server.
To use a traditional sports example, asking a team in Los Angeles (home of North America's League of Legends Championship Series) to face a team in Berlin (home of Europe's League of Legends European Championship) would be like trying to play a sport with massive training weights strapped to the players' legs or a difference in equipment used by both teams.
I tried playing League of Legends on a different server myself when attempting to play on the Brazil server from Boston in 2015. At about 200 ping, it was not a fun experience. My character felt as though it was moving through syrup, and the time between my key pushes or mouse clicks and the character actually doing something on screen was very noticeable. It was infuriating and there was nothing I could physically do to fix it. This would be an unacceptable environment for professional players.
The 2020 Mid-Season Cup
Riot Games held off canceling its midseason international event, the Mid-Season Invitational, until it became apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic would not allow it to hold the event as previously planned. Disappointed fans, players and even a few South Korean organization team owners made noise on social media about the possibility of Chinese and South Korean teams playing each other online despite the ping difference.
The Mid-Season Cup was born, featuring an artificially inflated ping of 30-40 between both regions to keep the event as competitive as possible. This means a delay of about a third of a second, which was still enough to cause noticeable differences in gameplay.
The Mid-Season Cup method wasn't always perfect, as evidenced by some ill-timed plays, especially during teamfights. FunPlus Phoenix jungler Gao "Tian" Tian-Liang's Kindred ultimates in particular were difficult to watch, as the timing needs to be exact for that move, and he was visibly thrown off by the delay.
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Top Esports emerged as the Mid-Season Cup victors and is currently looking like the best team in the world, so the ping difference didn't cost the event competitive integrity, but it did affect teamfighting and performance. In a worst-case scenario where North American or European teams would not be allowed into China due to visa restrictions, another tournament with artificially equalized ping between China and South Korea could be a solution.
The 2020 LoL Pro League and 2020 LoL Champions Korea
With China being the first country to be hit by the coronavirus and also the first to rebound significantly following its initial spike, the LoL Pro League dealt with competitive complications first and was also the first league to put forth solutions.
Following the initial virus outbreak, the LPL went down completely after a week of offline LAN play. The last game of Week 1 was played on Jan. 19. Players and staff had returned to their homes for the Lunar New Year holiday and found themselves stuck there until further notice.
After the virus was contained, most players outside of the epicenter in the city of Wuhan and Hubei province were allowed to return to team houses in Shanghai, undergoing a mandatory 14-day quarantine to ensure that they were virus-free. The LPL resumed on March 9 as a completely online league, with some teams having to make lineup substitutions due to players still being unable to travel. By the time the spring finals were played, Shanghai was safe enough for teams to travel to the Shanghai arena and play in a LAN environment. For the summer split, the LPL has been fully offline, with the teams playing each other at the arena without audiences present.
Similarly, South Korea's LoL Champions Korea took a brief hiatus in spring before bringing teams back to its venue at LoL Park in Seoul, also without audiences in attendance.
If teams fly to Shanghai to play in a LAN environment, they will have to be physically quarantined for approximately 14 days before being allowed to travel to the venue itself. On the chance that the virus worsens, these matches could also be played online, provided that the teams were still physically close enough for all of them to play on the same server, similar to the 2020 spring LPL online matches.
The 2020 Overwatch League grand finals
The Overwatch League is another league that has been dealing with how to determine a champion among teams spread across the world. On Wednesday, the league announced that it will be flying the top two teams from the North American playoff bracket to Asia to face the top two teams from the Asian playoff bracket in an online grand finals event. The reasoning for not having a LAN environment is because it allows the league to stick to their grand finals schedule regardless of increased restrictions that might make offline play unfeasible. Teams will still have to quarantine for a number of days to be determined.